Jewish day schools investing in future with tablet devices

Toward the end of his life, Apple’s visionary leader, Steve Jobs, was visited by Bill Gates of Microsoft. The conversation turned to the future of education.

As related in “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of the late Silicon Valley icon, both men agreed that computers had made surprisingly little impact on schools.

One of the many projects Jobs had hoped to develop before he died, Isaacson explained, was “to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of worn-out students by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad.”

Jobs might have been happy to learn that Jewish schools nationwide are beginning to do just that, and more are lining up to join them — if not via the iPad, then through other tablet devices.

Teacher Evan Wolkenstein helps student Estefany Martinez at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. photo/courtesy of jchs

“It’s not when it’s going to happen, it’s what is happening,” said Debby Jacoby, director of the Center for Jewish Educational Leadership at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. “Anyone who isn’t headed that way is a step behind.”

Jacoby was in Atlanta last week at the national conference of Jewish day schools, where the focus was not only on how to prepare students for the coming century, but how to make their education more affordable.

“These affordable devices are used by the students over several years, and subsidized by the [schools and] parents,” she said.

San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay last year provided highly subsidized laptops to each of its 174 students, and this fall launched an iPad pilot project that is teaching 17 of the school’s 60 staff and faculty members how to use the Apple tablet in the classroom.

Right now, said JCHS communications director Maura Feingold, there are no plans to ditch the laptops and ask the kids — or, rather, their parents — to shell out for iPads. “But with technology changing so rapidly, we will incorporate iPads and any other new technology as it’s developed,” she said.

At the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, a $200,000 donation, most of it from a single donor, has jump-started the school’s tech leap forward.

“We redid the entire network from routers to servers, we put interactive white boards [large computer screens] throughout the school, and in August we started a tech training for our teachers,” said Allen Selis, who arrived as headmaster last summer.

A year or 18 months from now, he says, all students will be required to have a tablet — but it won’t necessarily be an iPad.

“The technology is young, it’s still in development,” Selis said. “I like the elegance and stability of the iPad, but I don’t love the idea of being locked into the Apple Store.”

It’s not about having the latest technology for its own sake, said Selis, but about synchronizing that technology with new pedagogical priorities.

One leader in tablet integration in Jewish schools is Frankel Jewish Academy in suburban Detroit, where each student received a new iPad2 at the beginning of this school year, thanks to a generous gift from a donor.

“The move to this incredible new technology gives teachers access to so many more sources and enables students to leverage their learning,” said Patti Shayne, the school’s director of technology. “With the iPad, students have one central place for assignments, communications and textbooks and reading material.”

The Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fla. is offering an entirely paperless Talmud course using iPads, thanks to the iTalmud app.

“The increased levels of engagement, portability, and space and cost saving have been enormous,” said Seth Dimbert, the school’s director of learning technologies. “It’s an ideal way to study the Talmud, which is in some sense the original hypertext.”

At JCHS, Jewish Studies teacher Evan Wolkenstein has gone completely paperless. Everything is done on the students’ laptops, from course descriptions to homework.

Not only does digital learning appeal to students because it “speaks” a language they’re already using in their personal lives, he said, but the technology encourages the kind of collaborative, self-paced learning that experts now favor.

“The digital world we live in is made for collaborative work, in ways that increase creativity,” Wolkenstein said. “These tools are designed to gather input from various voices in the room. Students can post at their own pace, from home. It’s a good way to teach collaborative problem-solving.”

Computers allow students to tap into their creativity without getting bogged down by practical skills they have not yet mastered. For example, Wolkenstein has his students use Home Styler to design buildings as a way, he said, “to understand how the Temple in Jerusalem contains within itself messages about Jewish philosophy.” Without the computer program, they wouldn’t know how to design, he said, and wouldn’t “feel” the lesson in their own hands.

Like Selis, Wolkenstein isn’t convinced the iPad is necessarily the next step, but he is banking on tablets in general. For now, he says, they can’t do everything laptops do. “But once they can, within the next year or two, they will surpass laptops,” he predicts. “Then it will be incredible.”

J. editor Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.